The pool of candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination is large and growing. This is a mixed blessing, and some of the contenders are not helpful additions to the race.
It is gratifying, of course, that so many people are qualified (or see themselves as being qualified) to seek the presidency. Before hats began being thrown into the proverbial ring, I had a short, if tentative, list of those I thought reasonable candidates. My list included few of the present hopefuls, and at least one person on my list shows no inclination to run. It is good to have choices, though, and to learn of qualifications of which I had been unaware. But such a large field creates problems by its size alone.
Campaigning is expensive, and, although some candidates have reported striking fund-raising success early on, I worry that there will be insufficient money to create anything like a level playing field for all the players. But the advent of Donald Trump has energized the Democratic faithful, so my concern could be unfounded. I plan to give money to at least one candidate.
The value of presidential debates has been questioned, but debates among candidates for the nomination are undoubtedly useful, since, invariably, not everyone is well-known. With so many candidates, however, it is difficult to design a debate format that allows all candidates to be compared head-to-head. Certainly, the “kids’ table” plan used by the Republicans in 2016 was not satisfactory. I think Democrats are determined to avoid that mistake, but it is difficult to imagine a debate scheme that works equally well for 5 candidates and for twenty candidates. The fairness and usefulness of debates are difficult to assure.
Because there are so many contenders, it may be hard for voters to distinguish candidates from one another generally and from similarly positioned rivals specifically. Some candidates claim to be progressive, and others are pitching themselves as moderates, though they may not use that word. (Certainly, no Democrat is claiming to be conservative.) Devising a linear ordering of candidates from centrist to leftist is difficult enough, and it is complicated by differential financial support and the vagaries of debates and media coverage. Other factors complicate the choice faced by voters—issues of sex, race, age, experience, and aggressiveness.
With so many people running, our usual voting system is not well-suited to selecting the people’s choice. For example, the progressive vote could be split among left-leaning candidates, allowing a more moderate candidate to gain a plurality of votes. Delegate selection is not winner-take-all everywhere, of course, but, in an ideal world, we would be using some form of ranked preference voting in all our elections. (See, for example, “The People’s Choice (Round Two).”) Unfortunately, such an innovation is a hard sell. Don’t discount a crapshoot.
On the positive side, the presidential-primary process is a kind of trial by ordeal. Over a period of months, candidates invariably stumble. The nature of their mistakes and how they recover from them offer insight into their character, their staff choices, and their capabilities. One hopes that such insight helps voters make better choices.
Considering all of the foregoing, there are three candidates I would prefer not to see in the Democratic race: Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden.
It concerns me that Beto O’Rourke is fundamentally a pretty face. He is winsome, articulate, handsome, youthful, and devoid of significant political accomplishment. Admittedly, youthfulness is not to be despised, but I worry that O’Rourke will draw support from older candidates of substance. I fear that Trump would eat him for breakfast.
There are two obvious strikes against Bernie Sanders, in my mind at least. First, he is not a Democrat. Why do we even let him run in Democratic primaries? Admittedly, he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, but one has to ask why he avoids casting his lot with the party whose nomination he seeks. If he does not win the nomination, he will remain only a near-Democrat. More importantly, Sanders is—pardon the ageist rhetoric—old, even older than Donald Trump. If elected president, he would begin his term at age 79. Is it a fair bet that he could remain a capable executive and commander-in-chief through two full terms? Surely, we do not want to elect a one-term Democratic president. Sanders has proposed interesting objectives, but it is less clear that he has practical policies that could reasonably implement them. One can only guess at Sanders’ foreign policy priorities. His candidacy will drain votes from younger left-leaning candidates without Sanders’ name recognition and fund-raising ability.
Finally, we come to Joe Biden. In his way, he is as charming as Beto O’Rourke, though his propensity to hug anything that moves is a little creepy. Unlike some other candidates, no one seriously questions Biden’s qualifications—Trump would, of course—though, admittedly, he has some slipups in his past. Biden is nearly as old as Sanders, however, and I think that should be considered too old. Moreover, in the Democratic field, he is clearly a moderate. His name-recognition advantage may keep the party from selecting what I think is necessary to beat Donald Trump, namely, an aggressive liberal (or aggressive progressive, if you prefer).
The race for the Democratic nomination is just beginning. As of this writing, Joe Biden is still doing his Hamlet impression, but few doubt that he will enter the fray. I hope he does not and does not do well if he does. I hope people will see Bernie Sanders as a grumpy old man unlikely to gain the support of those who do not support him already. And I hope that Democrats will see Beto O’Rourke is a promising candidate in need of additional experience and accomplishment.
However the primary season plays out, it is likely to be a wild ride. Stay tuned.